California stepped up its environmental efforts last fall when the state passed a law capping greenhouse emissions and sued the Big 6 automakers for damages caused by auto exhaust. As California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the new greenhouse gas bill, he predicted the U.S. would follow the state’s lead in fighting global warming.
Some law firms are inclined to agree that the federal government will increase regulations, and they are responding accordingly. Indeed, after more than 15 years of slashing environmental law practice groups, big law firms are on a hiring spree. They’re beefing up their expertise and reorganizing, creating climate change and global warming practice groups.
One such firm is Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. It launched its climate change and sustainability practice group the day after Schwarzenegger signed the bill.
The Kyoto Protocol is an international climate change treaty that caps greenhouse emissions for the more than 160 countries that are signatories. But President Bush has shunned the agreement, saying he fears it could damage the economy and he believes it should not exclude developing nations.
The U.S. stance may change, says Michael B. Gerrard, head of Arnold & Porter’s New York City environmental practice and past chair of the ABA’s Section of Environment, Energy and Resources.
“There’s a widespread belief that whoever becomes president in 2009 will re-engage the U.S. in the global system of greenhouse gas regulation,” he says.
Gerrard says major regulations are expected to be adopted within a year or two after the next presidential election. He believes they will lead to substantial work for lawyers specializing in areas like environmental law, land use and energy. “It would be the first major environmental regulatory program adopted in the United States in nearly two decades,” Gerrard notes.
Gerrard says his firm has yet to see enough global warming work to justify a new practice group. But others are forging ahead. San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster, for example, is proceeding with plans to create a climate change practice group.
“I just see this as a major wave that is going to sweep across the country and across the world,” says MoFo partner Gordon P. Erspamer, who co-chairs the firm’s energy group. He says he’s seeing consensus from government and from the academic and business communities that something has to be done. “It’s one of the few areas where there seems to be a high level of unanimity,” says Erspamer, who works in the Walnut Creek, Calif., office.
Erspamer says smaller boutique firms already are focusing on climate change practices, and bigger firms will organize to offer clients one-stop shopping.
Pillsbury Winthrop’s Sheila McCafferty Harvey, of the firm’s Washington, D.C., office, says it will be adding to its environmental practice area in addition to its energy and litigation groups. It’s also possible the public policy team will see more hires, though not necessarily because of the climate change focus.
“A lot of firms in the last 15 years have reduced or done away with their environmental practices,” says Harvey, co-chair of the firm’s new climate change practice and of its national environmental practice. “It is conceivable that it will lead to a renaissance in environmental law.”
Cleveland lawyer David E. Nash says his firm, the environmental law boutique McMahon DeGulis, launched a climate change practice group in October and has seen new business in climate change and sustainability issues. But he doubts that the kind of big-volume work sought by large law firms is around the corner.
“This could be big-volume work eventually,” he says. “But right now, I see this as strategic, surgical—a niche practice.”